Mountain gorillas live in high mountain forests, pushed by human habitation up the steep slopes; they are marooned on the mountain islands amidst a war over mineral resources. One one side of the war are companies like SOCO International and their proxies, corrupt government officials, armed paramilitary groups like M23 that want a piece of the rewards, and poachers who kill for food and valuable ivory, or wantonly slaughter of gorillas for the sheer hell of it. On the other side… is a small group of park rangers. Virunga is shot from the epicenter of this war, and we are made aware that the fight is indeed desperate, and the stakes are total. Since 1996, 140 Virunga rangers have been murdered in the line of duty. This documentary, once we meet those who are defending this place with their lives, is harrowing to watch. Not the least because the people and the dangers they face are real, but because this is a crisis with no resolution in sight.
Shockingly, we actually meet both sides of this conflict. That does not happen often in docs about geopolitical hot spots, the antagonists generally reduced to footnotes of denial. Emmanuel de Merode is the director of the Virunga National Park, and is dedicated to the park, and the mountain gorillas that live nowhere else. He works with a group of rangers who patrol the park for illegal poachers, loggers, rebels, company agents, and others who labor endlessly to force abandonment of the park. Rodrigue Matembo, the primary warden of Virunga, is utterly fearless and chases down heavily armed men on a daily basis. Yes, they have both suffered violent attacks and attempted murder. And no, they don’t give a fuck. As Rodrigue noted, “I am not special.” The park is everything to them, and is a legacy that should continue long after they, and SOCO, and the corrupt officials who fight them are in the ground. Andre Bauma is the caretaker of orphaned gorillas who are injured and nursed back to health. His passion and dedication to the primates is palpable, borne of caring for a cause that is as essential as it is dire. To see him leave his beloved gorillas and polish his AK rifle in preparation for a battle is heartbreaking. “I will die for the gorillas.” To him, there is no difference between living things, human or otherwise, and is willing to shoot back to prove it. These men are brave beyond recklessness. And of course the French journalist who walks the streets of Goma, meets violent rebels, and dons a hidden camera to catch the oil company agents who admit to bribery and force to take over the park… I am in awe of the risks they take, and I genuinely wish I had the integrity or passion to take a stand this important. Although there is a way to get involved – see the end of this review.
And we meet the other side – via hidden camera interviews. Rodrigue meets a regional official who outright tells the warden that he is ‘buying’ him, and SOCO is paying. And the journalist films the agents employed by SOCO to bribe and undermine the National Park rangers and directly pay the M23 rebels to overrun the Congolese army and seize control of the entire region. Lest I forget, we also meet the M23 colonel who discusses the business of seizing land and demanding money from the companies who want to exploit it. The company agents are fond of discussing the ‘savages’ who ‘like killing’ and cannot be ‘reasoned with’. Sure, we all know multinational corporations bribe and undermine governments, throw elections, and hire third parties to sabotage or kill anything that stands in the way of the next financial quarter. It even happens outside of the United States. And we know they deny all this, and we all sort of accept the blanket of deniability and go on with our lives. Virunga strips this veneer away and makes quite clear the direct hand SOCO has in destroying the park – and the destruction is still underway.
One common misconception about wildlife conservation is that it is about animals over people, or that people are less important than the endangered species under protection. This critique comes primarily from companies that want the conservation movement halted to allow full access to exploitation of mineral resources, and naturally the public has bought into this. Conservation has always been about the whole – protect the land on which the people and the animals live. Preservation of forest, grass, freshwater, ocean; we – all things – need these to survive.
Conservation is about long term viability. If Virunga is razed to drain the area of oil, then SOCO’s stock price goes up, but none of the money benefits the people who live there. And if money matters, then the tourism income from the park is gone for decades, if not permanently. The agents filmed babbling about their work expressed some disbelief about what keeps the rangers going. Why don’t they sell out and leave? Why are they willing to die for the gorillas? Well, because the gorillas are only a part of the park, which is an ecosystem that is essential to the people of the Congo. They fight for their homes, and for the park that should still be around hundreds of years from now. When M23 attacked and the people of Goma were shot, many of them came to the Ranger station for help. They knew what the rangers stand for, and for the children who had limbs blown off by the SOCO proxies, they were the only ones who would help. “This park lives forever.”
Virunga National Park is not that far away. Wildlife areas all over the world sit atop resources that could feed the stock value of virtually every company on Earth, and most would not survive the extraction of those resources. In Virunga, the war is a literal one, and the effort to ruin a nation by business interests is evident. SOCO has no problem with attempting to murder Emmanuel de Merodo (they tried, and shot him several times, and he fucking survived), arrest and torture Rodrigue Matembo (he survived, and will not be bought), and fund M23 as they butcher their way through Goma. They do, however, have a problem with public embarrassment. Strange, that value system. The rangers continue to fight to protect the natural world under their charge, and sure enough there is a way to involve yourself.
SOCO has refused to withdraw from their claim in Virunga. They officially deny any involvement in Virunga, and if there is any involvement it is not illegal. You do not even need to leave your home, or close that porn window you have open.
1. Spread the word about the Virunga National Park and the film. Now streaming on Netflix.
2. Sign up on the virungamovie.com website.
3. The park needs continued funding. Not for catering or strippers, but for the rangers who are fighting for their lives.†http://www.virunga.org/donate
4. Check your investments for SOCO stock. Divestment in a company this fucking stupid would be a wise self-serving move, but you could write to them and ask what they are doing to safeguard Virunga. Enough embarrassment may just make a sociopath back down. A quick look revealed some of this company in 401k and investment firm stocks, and I have written them my concerns, and requested immediate divestment if those concerns are not addressed pronto. Because fuck those guys.